Mon, Nov 26, 2018 - Page 8 News List

The C-word: what are we saying when we talk about cults?

All kinds of violent deeds have been perpetrated in the name of religion, from wars to witch-burnings to child sex abuse cover-ups. Why don’t we use the word cult more widely?

By Laura Woollett  /  The Guardian

Cults are hot right now, or so it would seem. One of the bestselling literary debuts of recent years, Emma Cline’s The Girls, tells of a teenage girl’s flirtation with a Manson-like cult in the summer of 1969. American Horror Story’s seventh season, subtitled Cult, delivers a political horror story that references the Manson family and Jonestown alongside Trump and creepy clowns. Netflix viewers binged on this year’s documentary series Wild Wild Country, with its deliriously cool soundtrack and archival footage of the Rajneeshees — followers of controversial guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.

The trend shows signs of continuing, with Quentin Tarantino’s star-studded treatment of the Manson family murders scheduled for release next summer (50 years after the crimes took place), and Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan rumored to be developing a HBO series based on the Reverend Jim Jones, of Jonestown infamy.


As an author whose latest novel, Beautiful Revolutionary, deals with similar subject matter, it’s tempting — even commercially advisable — to ride the cult wave.

As a person who has spent time with Jonestown survivors and their families, I’m more ambivalent. What are we really talking about when we talk about cults?

Most people have heard of Jonestown and Jim Jones, in some form. Even if the names don’t ring a bell, if you’ve ever seen a fictional depiction of a cult, certain details are likely to be familiar: jungle commune, poisoned fruit punch, paranoid preacher in sunglasses, dead bodies. Tellingly, fewer people have heard of Peoples Temple, the group best known for that 1978 mass murder-suicide of more than 900 of its members in the remote settlement of Jonestown, Guyana. Even fewer have an understanding of what Peoples Temple actually believed in.

“Drinking the Kool-Aid” is an idiom that derives from the Jonestown tragedy, commonly used to refer to blind obedience or belief in a flawed idea. Despite this, the fundamental belief of Peoples Temple was equality — hardly a kooky concept. Jonestown wasn’t supposed to be a place of death, but a place where members (the majority of whom were racial minorities) could live free of discrimination.

In 2015, I spent two months in the US researching Peoples Temple. I visited Richmond, Indiana, where Jim Jones met his wife, Marceline, in the 1950s, and where her grave is located. I visited 7700 East Road in Redwood Valley, California, where the Peoples Temple church constructed in the late 1960s still stands. I sat in kitchens and coffee shops, talking to people who had lost friends and family in Jonestown, and who could have easily been lost themselves. Some of these conversations continued months later, over email or Skype. Not one of them used the word “cult” in earnest.

“We weren’t a cult, we were a social movement,” one survivor made a point of telling me. “We were revolutionaries.”

Earlier, the same man had told me about his wife and child dying in his arms. He had told me of his contempt for Jim Jones, the man who ordered their deaths, and who had fostered an atmosphere of such fear and desperation that these orders seemed almost justifiable. He had told me also of his contempt for the current state of US politics, Trump’s racism, sexism and fear-mongering. As far as I could tell, he seemed like a reasonable person, albeit one who had lost a lot.

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